WASHINGTON POST 12/21/12
By Michael Shank
Friday morning, the National Rifle Association will hold a much anticipated press conference, responding to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that claimed 26 lives last week.
No matter what the powerful group says, there will likely still be calls for stronger gun control laws as the nation still mourns. And in most cases, I will support these efforts.
But here’s where the talk of gun safety falls short. In the wake of Connecticut’s mass shooting, we’re witnessing an entirely reactionary approach to gun violence.
Don’t get me wrong.
Yes, we need an assault weapons ban, as there’s no good self-defensive reasoning for military-grade weaponry on our streets.
Yes, we need to ban high-capacity magazines and the easy access to ammunition online.
Yes, we need better background checks and better mental health data.
Yes, we need to better fund the perpetually under-resourced National Instant Criminal Background Check System and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Yes, we need to make gun trafficking a federal crime; it’s remarkable that it isn’t.
And yes, both political parties are to blame for preventing this from happening and for allowing gun numbers to grow to 300 million, a 50 percent increase from 200 million in merely 15 years.
Slowing the 100,000 gun related injuries per year, 30,000 of which result in death, however, won’t happen from a simple upgrade in gun controls and gun safety, though that would surely help.
At the root of gun violence is something much more insidious.
Look at any of the hard data on the geography of gun violence: the majority of it consistently corresponds and correlates strongly with poverty and inequality. This should come as no surprise to anyone who knows anything about how shame or guilt works in instigating violence.
In societies with higher poverty and inequality rates – keep in mind that America is breaking recent records on both fronts – shame especially, and consequently violence, is quite prevalent.
Don’t take my word for it. Look at James Gilligan’s Harvard faculty writings on preventing violence, Richard Florida’s reporting at the Atlantic on the geography of violence, the Economist’s intelligence unit’s quantitative peace indices, or the Equality Trust’s data. The findings are consistent.
While this is the softer side of preventing violence, to ignore it is a fool’s errand – especially in Anacostia, where I live, unemployment is 35 percent, poverty is pervasive and educational achievement is leagues below the rest of the District.
Think about it. If I’m poor, can’t provide for my family, have little to no education to stand on and can’t afford health care when my child gets sick, how do you think I’d feel, especially if someone or something disrespected me? Or if the District did a disservice to my neighborhood, like Metro’s plans to cancel bus service in Southeast, which is the primary access to my job? Or if the D.C. Council only saw value in my community for its cheap condo-building potential? Frankly, I’d be pissed and want to fight back.
Viewed through this lens, I can understand why young men in my neighborhood, or any neighborhood in America, would want to take up arms. That doesn’t mean it’s legitimate, but I can certainly see where they’re coming from.
Now couple America’s high rates poverty and inequality with our culture of violence that promulgates the idea that a gun gives you power (thank you Hollywood filmmaking, America’s endless war-making and violent video gaming), and you’ve got the makings of a seriously combustible situation.
This is what we must focus on, not merely gun bans and better mental health data reporting.
The NRA isn’t the only culprit in the room, perpetuating the propensity for violence in America. We are all culpable, for allowing poverty and inequality to remain pervasive, for promoting policies that exacerbate these problems (see fiscal cliff conversations), and for doing little to reduce the educational achievement and economic opportunity gaps in this country.
There is a reason why violence is rare in countries and locales where poverty is low and equality is high. It is time we focused on that for a change.
Michael Shank, a resident of Anacostia, is adjunct faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and senior fellow at the French American Global Forum.